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Entangled Life

How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change our Minds and Shape Our Futures

By Merlin Sheldrake
15-minute read
Audio available
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake

Entangled Life (2020) ushers us into the vast, hidden world of fungi. In it, we follow molds, yeasts, lichens, and many other fungi as they creep through the soil, intoxicate us with their scent, and induce mesmerizing visions. With a change in perspective, we can begin to see the world from a more fungal point of view –⁠ and understand how these organisms might be the key to our future survival.

  • Plant lovers and amateur naturalists
  • Fans of nature shows and documentaries
  • People who enjoy looking at the world from different perspectives

Merlin Sheldrake is a fungal biologist with a PhD in tropical ecology from Cambridge University. His research focuses primarily on fungal biology and the history of Amazonian ethnobotany. He is also a musician, brewer, and fermenter.

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Entangled Life

How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change our Minds and Shape Our Futures

By Merlin Sheldrake
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake
Synopsis

Entangled Life (2020) ushers us into the vast, hidden world of fungi. In it, we follow molds, yeasts, lichens, and many other fungi as they creep through the soil, intoxicate us with their scent, and induce mesmerizing visions. With a change in perspective, we can begin to see the world from a more fungal point of view –⁠ and understand how these organisms might be the key to our future survival.

Key idea 1 of 9

Fungi challenge our conceptions of intelligence and individuality.

The slime mold Physarum polycephalum is a deft problem-solver. When faced with a labyrinth, it’s able to compare different courses of action and determine the most efficient way out.

In one experiment, Japanese researchers placed Physarum in petri dishes modeled on the Greater Tokyo area. Oat flakes, which the fungus could use as food, were used to mark out major urban hubs, while harmful bright lights signified obstacles like mountains. After just one day, the slime mold figured out the quickest route among the oat flakes. Remarkably, its network resembled Tokyo’s existing rail system almost identically. 

Physarum is able to navigate its surroundings and make decisions despite having no brain or central nervous system. Does that mean it lacks intelligence? Or could it be that Physarum and other fungi do possess intelligence –⁠ just a completely different kind of intelligence from humans?

The key message here is: Fungi challenge our conceptions of intelligence and individuality.

Fungi are a form of network-based life, made up of a collection of thin tubes called hyphae. When hyphae grow, branch, and tangle, they form the dense network known as mycelium. But hyphae also form into fruiting bodies like mushrooms. Slice open a mushroom and you’re looking at the very same material that makes up the rest of the mycelium. Often, the purpose of these fruiting bodies is to disperse reproductive spores.

Sounds pretty simple. But try to answer this question: Are mycelial networks individuals or collectives?

On one hand, we can view each mycelial network as a swarm of hyphal tips. Each tip operates individually; there is no leader or central command center. Yet, at the same time, all hyphal tips are connected to one another –⁠ you can’t dismantle a mycelial network hypha by hypha. Reduce a mycelium to just one thin tube and it can regenerate the entire network. This means mycelium is at once a single entity and a multitude of individuals.

Why might this matter to us humans? After all, it’s easy for us to define our individual selves. We end where our bodies end, right?

Well, not quite. Our bodies contain entire communities of bacteria, microbes, genes, and cells obtained or inherited from disparate sources. Without them, we’d become sick or even die. Perhaps we, like fungi, are living communities, at once individual and collective. And perhaps it’s time we reevaluated our time-honored notions of individuality, autonomy, and self.

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